College isn’t the only path to post-secondary success. Options like apprenticeships, coding bootcamps, and vocational training programs can also lead to successful careers for a fraction of the cost.

There are many reasons why you may not want to go to college.

Maybe you want to start earning money right after high school and become financially independent. Maybe the degree programs offered don’t match your current interests or what you’d like to do. Or maybe you just don’t see the point of spending thousands of dollars you don’t have on an education that may or may not lead to a high-paying job — and that’s 100% okay.

There are many alternative paths you can take that are far more affordable and can help you get the skills needed to make a living — and then some.

In this article, we’ll go through a few of the most popular alternatives to going to campus, to help you find the best option for you.

Community college

Community college is a much cheaper alternative to getting a four-year degree, especially if you keep it local. In fact, in some places, like Boston, you can get your certificate or associate’s degree without spending a single dime if you’re a resident and meet certain requirements.

But if you don’t live in a place that offers free community college, don’t fret. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average cost per credit as an in-state student at a public two-year college is $141, while in-state students at four-year public colleges pay an average of $390 per credit hour.

Besides that, you also get access to the same financial aid resources available to those going to a four-year college. These include federal grants, scholarships, federal student loans, and work-study programs, so you’re golden.

But the best part about going to community college (besides the lower price tag, of course)  is that you can complete a certificate program or an associate’s degree in two years or less, some of which can lead to high-paying jobs.

Here are some examples:

So, yeah, I’d say community college is a pretty solid option to consider.

Related: How much can I save by going to community college

Vocational training programs

Do you want to be a hairstylist? A pastry chef? A bartender? Or maybe an electrician? If so, vocational or trade school is definitely the option you should explore.

Unlike the traditional college experience in which you’ll have to study literature and humanities even if you’re a biology major, vocational schools focus on teaching you the core skills needed to perform a specific job.

Most programs take an average of 18 months to complete, and you’ll get hands-on learning all the way, which means you’ll be workforce-ready by the time you get your certification.

Although the average cost of completing a vocational program in the U.S. is $33,000, there are some programs that can be completed for just a few thousand bucks — especially if you can complete it through a community college.

Besides that, these professions typically allow you to make a pretty penny, too.

Case in point? In a recent video, Cardi B admitted to shelling out $1,200 in a single visit to get her hair and nails done.

But even if you don’t get high-end clients like Cardi B, we all need to get a haircut at some point or hire an electrician to help with some wiring around the house, so you’ll never run out of clients.

Technical college

Just like a vocational school, technical colleges focus on teaching you the skills needed to perform a particular job in a specific industry through hands-on learning. The main difference, however, is that technical colleges tend to offer a wider selection of programs.

Some of the careers you could pursue by attending a technical college include:

  • Cosmetologist.
  • Graphic designer.
  • Automotive technician (aka mechanic).
  • Cybersecurity specialist.
  • Emergency medical technician (paramedic).
  • Tax preparing assistant.
  • Commercial truck driver.
  • Occupational therapy assistant.
  • Refrigeration technician.
  • Billing and posting clerk.
  • Woodworker/cabinet maker.
  • Web and software developer.

All of these programs can be completed in one-to-two years, and cost less than $12K, on average, based on my research. Besides that, some technical colleges, like Northwood Technical College, for example, offer programs that are eligible for federal financial aid, allowing you to save even more on your education.

Coding bootcamps

If you’re a tech wizard, this one’s for you. Coding bootcamps have risen in popularity over the past few years — and for very good reason.

These programs can be completed 100% online in as little as 12 weeks (although some programs can last up to 24 weeks), and graduates are typically employed within 180 days after graduation, with a median starting salary of $62,400.

According to data from Course Report, the average coding bootcamp costs $14,400, while a traditional computer science degree at a four-year institution costs $172,000. So, basically, you could recoup your investment in less than a year.

So, what can you do after completing a coding bootcamp? Here are some ideas:

  • Web developer.
  • Software engineer.
  • Front-end developer.
  • Computer programmer.
  • Support engineer.

On the downside, these programs aren’t usually eligible for federal financial aid — so if you don’t have the money upfront, you’ll most likely have to get a private student loan or work some sort of payment agreement with the school to cover the costs.

However, there are some places, like Coursera, edX, and Ada Developers Academy, that offer some of these courses for free.


Apprenticeships combine the best of both worlds: learning and earning.

Let’s unpack that, shall we?

When you’re an apprentice, you basically get paid to learn how to do a specific job at the company that’s offering the program. While each apprenticeship program has its own requirements, you’ll typically need to be at least 16 or over, and have a high school diploma or GED to apply.

Besides earning a nice paycheck for learning on-the-job skills, many companies also extend other benefits, including free work gear or equipment, health insurance, access to a 401(k) or another employer-sponsored retirement plan, and paid time off.

In other words, you’re an employee. You’re just not considered at full occupational capacity until you complete the program, which can last anywhere from six months up to a year.

According to, 92% of apprentices retain employment after completing the program, and earn a whopping $72K a year, on average.

Most of these programs are available for free to apprentices, and, in some cases, you can also get college credit after completion. The only major hurdle is landing the opportunity itself, as it is a highly competitive environment.

Some of the industries that offer apprenticeships include:

  • Healthcare.
  • Hospitality.
  • Cybersecurity.
  • Construction.
  • Energy.
  • Engineering.
  • Transportation.
  • Financial Services.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve written a pretty comprehensive piece on apprenticeships you can check out here.

Stackable credentials

Stackable credentials exploded in popularity during the pandemic, as they can be completed online and are relatively cheap (about $166 per course).

But what exactly are they, and what can you do with them?

Well, stackable credentials break larger degree programs, such as an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree, into small, digestible courses that can be completed in a few weeks or a couple of months.

They get their moniker because you can either stop after taking one, and get a certification for that specific skill you learned throughout the program, or you can “stack them” until you complete your degree.

These courses are usually offered online, through platforms like edX, and there aren’t really any requirements to enroll in one. You just need to be committed to learning.

Besides that, there are a ton of disciplines to choose from. You can learn about marketing essentials, the fundamentals of computer science, and even seemingly random things like the science behind dog behavior. All of which can help you gain career-propelling skills to help you get ahead in your desired industry.

The only major downside, just like with coding bootcamps, is that you’ll have to come up with most of the funds out-of-pocket. So, that’s something to keep in mind.

Start your own business

Okay, this one might require a bit of seed capital (or a lot, depending on what you’re going for), but it’s another option you can explore.

Here are some ideas:

Do you love animals? You can start your own pet-sitting service, which can be extremely profitable. Last time we went on vacation, we paid our cat sitter $45 per night, and we provided the food, toys, beds — you name it. And she had other cats to sit beside ours.

Are you good at baking? Sell your pastries.

Got talent behind the lens? Become an event photographer.

Are you crafty? Sell your stuff on Etsy.

The possibilities are endless. You just need to find the niche you’re good at, and go for it.


Going to college has long been considered as some sort of rite of passage all high school graduates must go through to become successful adults —  but that’s not entirely true.

As you can see, there are many options available that can lead to successful careers and good-paying jobs for a fraction of the cost. The most important thing is to do your research, so you can find the one that best matches your interests and professional goals.

Featured image: Monkey Business Images/

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About the author

Heidi Rivera
Total Articles: 33
Heidi Rivera is a Puerto Rico-based personal finance reporter. Her areas of expertise include credit, student debt, and higher education. Heidi’s work has been featured on Money, Yahoo, MSN Money, and Money Talks News. When she isn’t writing, Heidi likes to watch horror movies, enjoy a slice (or four) of pizza while sipping on some wine, or chilling at home with her cats. You can reach her on Twitter @_HRivera or on LinkedIn.